One of the most helpful disciplines for prayer is learning to pray the Bible. Praying the Psalms is a prime way of learning this discipline. Christopher Ash observes, “If you want your prayer life to be shaped by the word of God—as I hope you do!—you cannot do better than to make the psalms a central part of your prayers. For in the psalms we have words that God has given us to speak to God.”
For several years at our church, we have systematically promoted a “prayer psalm of the week,” encouraging church members to use the psalm to guide their prayers during the week. Some psalms hit us exactly where we live and seem almost as if they were written about our particular circumstances. They are easy to pray. Some—well—less so.
Take, for example, Psalm 21. I suspect a good many Christians will not find this the easiest psalm to pray.
Psalm 21 is about the king’s relationship to God. In our context, we might say it is about government’s relationship with God. Consider some of these words: “Oh LORD, in your strength the king rejoices, and in your salvation how greatly he exults!” (v. 1). “For the king trusts in the LORD, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved” (v. 7). How do you feel praying those words? Can you easily confess that your government leaders have rejoiced in God’s strength and exulted in his salvation? Has your president trusted in the Lord so that he will not be moved?
How do North Korean or Chinese or Afghan Christians pray these words in the face of open government opposition? How do Christians pray these words when they are more concerned about the godlessness of their governing authorities than they are confident of their righteousness?
The second half of Psalm 21 shows how the Lord uses this righteous king as his instrument of judgement against the wicked. David rejoices that the wicked do not succeed in the evil they plan or the mischief they devise. How does that translate into your prayers?
If anything, Christians tend to be highly sceptical of governing authorities. We tend to view our leaders as men and women of frail character who too often abuse their power. They certainly don’t sound like the righteous leaders that David envisions in Psalm 21.
Think about it: How often do you hear Christians commending ruling authorities? How often do you hear them complaining? Just moments before I started writing this, a Christian friend posted on social media, “I have no president (king) but Jesus.” Have you heard the sentiment? Have you perhaps uttered it—or at least thought it—yourself?
Of course, we should recognise that this wasn’t always an easy prayer for a devout Israelite to pray. What faithful Jew would devoutly pray this prayer about Ahab or Manasseh? Most of the kings of Israel were as big, if not bigger, tyrannical scoundrels than our rulers. And yet God gave this psalm to be a part of Israel’s worship.
Thankfully, however, Christians can pray this psalm far more confidently than we might first think. N. T. Wright correctly observes that psalms such as this “are not random exaltations of a militaristic monarch. They express, in the language and idiom of the time, the conviction that it is through the coming king (the human one, Israel’s anointed representative) that YHWH will establish his rule on earth as in heaven.” In other words, Psalm 21 should point us to Jesus Christ, the perfect King—the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Perhaps you find a prayer like this impossible to pray when you consider the rulers of your land. Perhaps you are forced to hold your tongue when discussion turns political because you find you have nothing good to say. If so, it may be time for you to read—and pray—Psalm 21 differently. It may be time to read and pray this psalm reflecting on the great King of kings and Lord of lords, who always does what is right, and through whom God will ultimately execute his perfect justice. He is a king worthy of such a prayer.